February 14, 2007

Vitrea est fortuna

In English: Fortune is made of glass.

This is another saying about Roman Fortuna, following up on the sayings of the past few days. Today's saying tells us that Fortune is vitrea, "glassy, made of glass."

If we look at a fuller form of the saying as found in Publilius Syrus, you can get a clearer picture of the underlying metaphor: Fortuna vitrea est; tum cum splendet, frangitur, "Fortune is made of glass; at the moment when she glitters, she breaks." Publilius Syrus, that is Publilius the Syrian, is the author of a collection of Latin sayings from around the first century B.C.E., the Sententiae.

This is yet another way to express the transitoriness of good Fortune, the "splendid" Fortune that breaks like glass. In previous sayings, we saw that Fortuna is round like a wheel, going up and going down. We also learned that Fortuna is a vagabond, coming and going from one place to another. The metaphor in today's saying is even more dramatic: Fortune is beautiful but fragile, like glass.

The Latin adjective vitreus is from the noun, vitrum, meaning "glass," as in the phrase in vitro, "in a glass (test tube)." We also have the word "vitreous" in English, so if you wanted, you could translate today's saying as "Fortune is vitreous" ... although I think "Fortune is made of glass" sounds better!

It's also worth saying something about the verb frangitur in the fuller version of the saying in Publilius. English is notoriously sloppy about transitive and intransitive verbs, making no distinction between them. You can say in English, "the glass breaks" (intransitive) and you can also say "I break the glass" (transitive). In Latin, however, there is a distinction that can be made: vitrum frango, "I break the glass," and vitrum frangitur, "the glass breaks." It is this intransitive form, frangitur, which is used in the proverb, more precise and less ambiguous than the English verb!

So, hoping that your Fortune is sparkling and not shattered, here is today's proverb read out loud:

5. Vitrea est fortuna.

The number here is the number for this proverb in Latin Via Proverbs: 4000 Proverbs, Mottoes and Sayings for Students of Latin.

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